A Little Something to Fight the Poison

Saturday, April 19, 2003
WORKING THE REFS: During a sharp but not completely uncivil exchange in the comments at The Daily Rant, Brett Cashman left a comment that (unintentionally) neatly summarizes the problem with the nationalist conservative view of neutrality and objectivity. In explaining that he doesn't mean to disparage the work of all international human rights groups (which as we know tend to lean left, for fairly obvious reasons), he writes:
I have no beef with any human rights organization investigating possible US or UK war crimes in Gulf War 2, provided (a) the investigation is conducted in good faith; (b) there is at least minimal acknowledgement of the tactical restraint demonstrated by coalition forces; and (c) there is at least minimal acknowledgement of the lack of tactical restraint on the part of Iraqi forces (irregulars, specifically). To put it more succinctly, it's fine to hold us to high standards, but not double standards.
As my highlighting suggests, I mainly have a problem with criterion (b).

Let's be clear: it simply is not the job of a watchdog group like Human Rights Watch to pat its subjects on the back for adhering to expected conduct. Ever.

From a liberal-democratic perspective, fully respecting human rights, even in war (that's why there's special rules for war) is simply a minimum expectation, not something that deserves a gold star. And so a human rights watchdog acts neutrally when it monitors this conduct on all sides as stringently as possible.

To illustrate, a human rights group that made the acknowledgement Brett suggests would be akin to the SEC examining a company and stating:
"While there may have been some amount of cheating here and there, we do want to acknowledge that the management exhibited a good deal of restraint by admonishing its employees to resist the great temptation to defraud anyone."
Such a statement would just be completely out of character considering its role.

Speaking broadly, I think the attitude Brett displays above may be one reason why so many liberals have such different views of media bias than conservatives do, and (one reason) why American conservatives can sincerely view the coverage that CNN, Fox, and MSNBC as relatively fair, whereas the rest of world views it as pap.

Following Eric Alterman, I suggest that nationalist conservatives interpret journalistic "objectivity" or "balance" as something like "giving both sides of the story equal time," regardless of the content of the claims on either side. In the case of American cable networks covering the War on Terror and the War on Iraq, "both sides" works out to "the American perspective" and "the other perspective" (whether that perspective is that of Iraq, France, or the rest of the world). Since the networks are American, we'll forgive them if they place a bit more emphasis on the American/Bush Admin prespective.

But the correct standard to apply to media objectivity is not whether it gives both sides equal time, but whether it applies the same standard of stringent criticism to all sides. This is because public depends on the media not merely to report facts but rather to use their resources to help the public sort out which claims made by the many powerful groups and individuals in the world are supported by good evidence. This means that it's the media's job to dismiss some claims as B.S. even if doing so completely destroys the position of one party. Based on this standard, it's safe to say that most people outside America judge the U.S. cable networks as doing an awful job of covering the war.

ASIDE: I think strict respect for human rights is especially to be expected of the U.S. And if you have any temptation to yell "double standard!" then I would suggest that you shouldn't be surprised if anyone uses a higher standard to evaluate a country that presents itself as such an exemplar of human rights that it qualified to act as a unilateral judge and enforcer of these rights. And nevermind the U.S. military's possession of an overwhelming technological and tactical advantage in the present conflict that only makes violations of the rules of war less excusable.
TORONTO, FRIENDLY LAND OF ATYPICAL PNEUMONIA: Still scary, or at least scary enough to have made coverage in the NYT. I guess an enforced quarantine of 7,000 people will give you some publicity; as would the Ontario Health Minister's admonishment to people who have even one possible SARS symptom (e.g. fever, sores, etc.) to "stay home." Yikes.

And my mom said that for Easter weekend, my family would be trying to "get out of the hot spot." Yeesh.
Thursday, April 17, 2003
AND I BET YOU THINK THE LAPD NEEDS SENSITIVITY TRAINING: One part of the U.S.' stabilize-Iraq-on-the-fly strategy that has me shaking my head is its snap decision to put Iraqi police officers, many of whom were presumably enforcers of Saddam's regime only a few weeks ago, back on the street post haste and pre-dethuggification. The American forces in Baghdad almost certainly haven't had time to separate out the goons. And so we get accounts like the following, from The Boston Globe:
Omar Sami, 19, recalled how two policemen arrested him for smoking on a public street during Ramadan this year and beat him to the ground. ''They said they would let me go if I paid them 5,000 dinars, but I didn't have it, so they put me in prison for a month,'' Sami said.

Now he doesn't believe that a new Iraqi police force will reinvent itself as the people's protectors. He prefers the protection of US troops.

''As long as the American army is with them, it will be OK,'' Sami said. ''It's going to be chaos again, as soon as they leave. Maybe the people will attack the police.''

As a group of neighbors watched, [Iraqi policeman] Ismail shoved two men into a car, after neighbors fingered them as thieves. They had no stolen property with them. Asked why they were being arrested, Ismail cited his instincts after 15 years as a beat cop.

''I know these people,'' he said. ''They are bad. We'll throw them in prison for a while to teach them a lesson.''

[Marine Sargeant-turned-Iraqi-police-trainer Justin] Day likened his police training task to ''babysitting a kindergarten class.''

''We're trying to teach them a new way of doing things, instead of just dragging people out on the street and shooting them, like they used to in the old regime,'' the Marine sergeant said. ''But they have to take care of things themselves. We can't do it for them.''
Sgt. Day is going to have the darndest anecdotes to bring home--"The guy just didn't learn--after too weeks, I was still all, 'Ismail, buddy, did you just completely not hear what I told you yesterday about why summary executions are not cool?'"
IT FEELS GOOD TO BE ABLE TO SAY "How in world does this guy come up with this stuff? Let me smoke some of that!"--and not be referring to a Freeper or a member of my family.

Sorry, I'm feeling vaguely bitter. Anyway, I want a hit off of whatever Tom Burka is smoking, because he made me day:
Suspected Chemical Weapons Actually Mammoth Collection of Pocket Lint

Suspect containers found in Karbala today housing many boxes containing a "suspect white, fluffy material," according to U.S. forces on the scene, turned out to contain pocket lint. Upon the initial discovery of the material, Sgt. Hurly Groton of the Fifth Brigade of the Third Column in the Second Row on the Righthand side of the Fourth Division, "Medical Doodads Unit," said something about the discovered material which sounded like "Immible tebs for chestible weemonds messle bled possibut," as far as could be heard through his 27-layer isolation suit. Later testing proved the huge stores of material to be, according to chemical analysis and documents buried with the materials, the largest collection of pocket lint ever found above or below ground. Officials from the Guinness Book of World Records were en route to the scene, but reportedly deeply excited. A spokesman for the Guiness Organization called it "the most significant collection on record since the discovery of the toenail clippings trove in Madras, 1976."

General Robert Walsh of the Chemical Detection Engineers expressed disappointment, but was optimistic about the eventual discovery of weapons of mass destruction. So far U.S. forces have made many promising disscoveries: 1) Many tons of a white powdery substance in a chemical plant which turned out to be many tons of a (benign) white powdery substance. (General Walsh declined to elaborate.); 2) Some stuff U.S. forces thought was fissionable plutonium in a gum factory that turned out to be (benign) gum; and 3) Some really large anthrax-like spores in a bicycle factory that turned out to be bicycle spokes. (Benign.)

Walsh was undeterred. "They're out there," he said, wading into a tank filled with a white, oozing paste-like substance in what the Iraqis claimed was a toothpaste factory.

Tuesday, April 15, 2003
THEORY FUN: Mark Kleiman is surprised by Pascal’s use of the concept of tyranny in what he finds to be an "odd way":
Tyranny consists in the desire of universal power beyond its scope. … Tyranny is the wish to have in one way what can only be had in another. We render different duties to different merits; the duty of love to the pleasant; the duty of fear to the strong; duty of belief to the learned. We must render these duties; it is unjust to refuse them, and unjust to ask others.

And so it is false and tyrannical to say, "He is not strong, therefore I will not esteem him; he is not able, therefore I will not fear him.
This gives me a great opportunity to advertise a political theorist I very much admire: Michael Walzer, who ran with Pascal's idea and attempted to create an entire political theory around in one of my favourite theory big books, Spheres of Justice. The core of Walzer's theory of justice is pretty much the following:
The first claim of Pascal and Marx [in another quote] is that personal qualities and social goods have their own spheres of operation, where they work their effects freely, spontaneously, and legitimately. There are ready or natural conversions that follow from, and are intuitively plausible because of, the social meaning of particular goods....Social goods have social meanings, and we find our way to distributive justice through an interpretation of those meanings. We search for principles internal to each distributive sphere.

The second claim is that the disregard of these principles is tyranny. To convert one good into another, when there is no intrinsic connection between the two, is to invade the sphere where another company of men and women properly rules....But the use of political power to gain access to other goods is a tyrannical use. Thus, an old description of tyranny is generalized: princes become tyrants, according to medieval writers, when they seize the property or invade the family of their subjects. In political life--but more widely, too--the dominance of goods makes for the domination of people....

The critique of dominance and domination points toward an open-ended distributive principle. No social good x should be distributed to men and women who possess some other good y merely because they possess y and without regard to the meaning of x.
I have to admit a certain degree of attraction to both the elegance and the intuitive plausibility of this theory. I know some liberals have issues with it because of its implicit traditionalism or conservatism--the question of who or what is to be the arbiter of "internal social meanings" is obviously fraught with significant problems--but it seems that the impulse Walzer captures is one that serious political thinkers cannot escape if they want the theories they advocate to be contextually grounded. Perhaps it's the emphasis on freedom from domination that renders it significantly more attractive to me than other theories of tradition; at least, I'd like to think it's something beyond my fondness for Walzer's style of writing.

(via Kieran Healy)
IN REPRISAL for its opposition in the UN Security Council, it appears that the U.S. has turned France into a Jerry Bruckheimer movie.
Monday, April 14, 2003
YOUPPI! The Rest of Canada can breathe a little more normally for the next 4 or so years: it looks like Jean Charest (or the PQ's incompetence) has finally done it and delivered the Quebec National Assembly back to the federalist provincial Liberals.

The Globe and Mail has it in 2 blessed words: projected Liberal majority.

UPDATE: It's official--Le Québec choisit les libéraux(!) Canadian federalists of all stripes and regions can smile. It was a very solid win, too: the PLQ got 45% of the overall vote (compared with 34% for the PQ and 19% for the ADQ) and have a pretty comfy 14-seat majority (76 of 125 seats).

The Liberals made deep inroads into traditionally soveriegnist territory, taking 9 or 11 seats in the Quebec City area, hardly bastion of federalism, and even scoring two seats in rural and heavily separatist Abitibi-Témiscamingue (also the region of Quebec that may have the funniest name).

An ever bigger surprise of this election, at least from the perspective of a few months ago, is that the ADQ did so badly. I think my French prof from this summer was right--the lefty Quebecois deserted them in droves when they got a real look at their market conservative platform.
THE MAN SAYS IT WELL: You often read in blogtopia the words "I can't say it any better than [insert major blogger or pundit name]." Today, I'm gonna skip over the entire blogger and talking head hierarchy, and give it to the contemporary maestro, the irreplaceable Mr. W.J. Clinton. I present his response to Sen. Dole's deprecation of the UN in their 60 Minutes debate last night:
Senator Dole: Mr. President, can you explain what this liberal love affair with the United Nations is all about? Liberating most of Iraq in less time than it takes to pass a U.N. resolution is a remarkable triumph....

But letting the U.N. dictate Iraq's new government? No way. That would be a costly and lengthy disaster. President Bush warned the U.N. would risk irrelevance. The U.N. should now understand what Saddam learned the hard way--that this president means what he says.

President Clinton: Senator, aren't you a little over the top? We were grateful when the U.N. stood with us after 9/11, when French and German soldiers joined us in Afghanistan to hunt for Osama bin Laden. You remember him. He's the one who killed our people. By the way, those French and German soldiers are still there.
The amazing thing isn't that it took Clinton to remind me of this, but that he could do it with such a simple turn of phrase. I guess that's why he's The Man.

Hey, Steven "Le Nuke" Den Beste, Michael Ledeen, William Safire, and all of you other whackjob righties who argued that the French and the Germans were in some sort of insane conspiratorial alliance with Saddam Hussein and/or fundamentalist Muslim groups to assault the United States, repeat after me:

Those French and German soldiers are still in Afghanistan.

That's right. Not once, during the entire UN imbroglio did either France or Germany utter a word about the contribution of its vitally needed troops from the International Security and Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan. Compare this with the actions of the Bush Administration, that holy defender of muscular humanitarianism, which threatened to withdraw American participation from the Bosnia peacekeeping mission so as to get its way with the International Criminal Court. In other words, it held the peacekeeping mission hostage as a foreign policy bargaining chip.

Given this difference in behaviour, it's incredible to me that so many Americans could sincerely assert the humanity of the American power and the perfidity of the Europeans. Do they realize how important ISAF is to the thin line between Karzai's very fragile regime in Kabul and an Afghanistan that's completely at the mercy of the Taliban or a bunch of warlord thugs? Or that the U.S. continues to refuse to lend support for its expansion outside of Kabul?

The next time you hear someone mouthing off about Freedom Fries or some other such nonsense, remember Bill's mantra about our European friends. And say it after me again:

Those French and German soldiers are still in Afghanistan.